President Obama told Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday that he has asked the Pentagon to draw up plans to have all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of the year.
But at the same time, Obama opened the door to the U.S. staying in the Central Asian nation even if Karzai hasn't signed a newly negotiated "Bilateral Security Agreement" before the end of April — the month of scheduled presidential elections in Afghanistan and what had been something of a deadline set by U.S. officials.
Here's how the White House describes what was said during a telephone conversation between the two leaders:
"With regard to the Bilateral Security Agreement, in advance of the NATO Defense Ministerial, President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning.
"Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
"At the same time, should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan.
"Therefore, we will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year. However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission. Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition."
It's thought that Karzai has been refusing to sign the agreement, NPR's Sean Carberry has said, because he wants to hold on to his powers until a successor is chosen and because he's trying to forge a peace deal with the Taliban. The deal has been approved, though, by Afghan parliamentarians.
As The Associated Press says, Obama's words about there still being time to strike a deal seem to indicate that "the fate of the continued U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan" will be left up to the winner of Afghanistan's elections. The wire service adds that:
"Obama has been weighing options from the Pentagon that would keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country after this year, contingent on the security agreement. However, some White House officials are believed to support keeping a smaller troop presence.
"The U.S. currently has about 33,600 troops in Afghanistan, down from a high of 100,000 in 2010.
"The longer the decision takes, the more expensive and risky the troop drawdown will become. With less time to move troops and equipment, the military will have to fly assets out rather than use cheaper ground transportation."